Grey skies and rainfall didn’t make for ideal boating weather, but hundreds gathered at Pier 84 on Sunday, Oct. 9 for the 24th Annual Great North River Tugboat Race and Competition. Spectators boarded a Circle Line Sightseeing Cruise boat early that morning hoping to get the best view of the race, which was held on the Hudson River, starting at 79th Street.
People started to arrive a half hour before the 9 a.m. boarding time. Infants clung to their parents while the adults chatted as they filled the first and second level, and some even braved the elements at the stern of the boat. Life jackets hung overhead, secured by thin white wooden panels. A few of the guests wondered how they’d retrieve them in case of emergency.
“It’s Sunday, that means no booze until noon,” joked a crew member on the mic. Instead, steam escaped the thermoses filled with hot beverages that passengers had packed.
John McCluskey, a nine-time tour guide for the tugboat race, took the microphone. After assuring the crowd that they had the best seats in the house, McCluskey showed his sense of humor. “What’s the best seat? The captain’s.”
Hosted by Working Harbor Committee, the race, which usually takes place during Labor Day weekend, was postponed until October due to a hurricane watch. Every year the non-profit showcases a handful of working tugboats that race the length of one nautical mile, from 79th St. to 44th St. After the race there are nose-to nose competitions and line tosses to test the endurance of the boats and their crews. Once the tugboat festivities are over, there is a spinach-eating contest back at the pier.
Three boats lined up for the competition: Emily Ann, is a robin’s egg blue tugboat, spewed charcoal smoke from its chambers, alongside the James Williams and Taft Beach, both white and red with gold accents. Tires lined Taft Beach’s perimeter and a man in a green windbreaker waved his arms enthusiastically from its deck.
“The maritime industry is still alive in the New York Port. I believe we are the second or third busiest port in the area,” says McCluskey. According to him, security has been high since September 11, making access to a tugboat nearly impossible except for authorized personnel. The Working Harbor Committee is taking the initiative to inform at-risk teenagers about the lucrative careers within the maritime business.
At the head of the boat, the tour guide gave a lesson on everything from Dutch history to the gentrification of the neighborhood that lines the Hell’s Kitchen harbor. West Side Yards, branded with the Trump name for licensing purposes, line the land across the Westside Highway where slaughterhouses and Penn Central Transportation Company once stood.
“I teach five days a week, so to be the one on the other end today feels nice,” says Amber Moye, a Connecticut elementary school teacher visiting New York for the holiday weekend. Moye wore a poncho provided by the boating service. “I didn’t think it was going to rain like this, but it won’t get in the way of my plans this weekend.”
Soon five more boats joined the competition – another blue one, the Megan Ann, from the same company as the Emily Ann; the Susan Miller, a smaller white boat that has hoisted a large American flag; the Buchanan 1 and Mister T, another set of sister boats with red and green stripes decorating their white exteriors; and the Sea Wolf, which has missed the race for the past few years.
“This is a pretty good turnout, folks,” says McCluskey. The rain fell a little harder, but the tugboats endured the conditions.
The Circle Line leaned to the right as spectators gathered to the port for a better view of the race. Over the intercom, a countdown began, and then, the boats were off. For a short time, the boats were in sync, and then the Emily Ann broke through, followed by Mister T. The further they got the more noise they made. It’s not until the finish line that the spectators realized the Megan Ann was neck and neck with its sister, Emily Ann, the entire time.
“This might be a photo finish,” says McCluskey after he realized just how close the two were.
Franklin Bernard had his eyes glued to the window for much of the race. From his perspective, Emily Ann was the rightful winner. “She’s been in the lead the whole time. She’s a lot bigger than Megan Ann and has a faster horsepower, so she had a lot of potential to take the win,” he said. Bernard, 52, is a mechanic from Long Island. He doesn’t know tugboats but finds the similarities between boats and cars comforting. Bernard was correct.
Almost immediately, the boats paired up for the nose-to-nose competition. For this, the boats use the tide to push up against each other and the first boat to yield, loses. Three pairs were set to start: Susan Miller versus Buchanan, Emily Ann versus Mister T and James Williams versus Megan Ann.
“When you see grey exhaust that’s how you know they’re really pushing—although the white water they’re kicking back is impressive,” McCluskey begins. “Sometimes the tugs come and try to challenge the Circle Line. She might be an old boat, but she’ll give them a run for their money.”
Why does McCluskey refer to the tugboats as she?
“It’s a maritime tradition. Costs a lot of money to run, costs a lot of money to keep…but really, where would you be without them?”